My father was from Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, India. This hot dry town is famous for its fiery red chillies, tobacco and gongura pacchadi (chutney). We made our duty visits to my grandparents’ Guntur home every summer vacation, where the highlight of the afternoon was to sneak out into a 40°C afternoon when all the grownups were snoozing and have a forbidden lime soda from a handcart down the road. My grandma was a wonderful cook and made the most mouth watering pickles and chutneys: in fact, every vegetable available soon found itself converted into a “pacchadi” but the queen of all things culinary was Gongura pacchadi- a HOT favourite with young and old alike. And by hot, I mean HOT and spicy!
Gongura is called Roselle in English and belongs to the hibiscus family. Roselle leaves are edible and sour to taste and these are what we use for making the famous chutney. There are two kinds : the red stalked and veined variety which is extremely sour and the variety which we call “white” but actually just has green stalks and leaf veins and is a much milder version as far as sourness is concerned. The leaf is mildly metallic to taste and that is because of its high iron content. Roselle is used by the Nepalese, along Assam, Manipur and Bengal and in all the southern states of India, but nowhere has it reached addictive proportions as it has in Andhra Pradesh where gongura pacchadi queens it over kitchens.
How to get into a pickle
Making gongura pickle at home is not everyone’s cup of tea. The process is spread over 3 days.
Get to the market first and buy the gongura greens. It’s better to mix the red and the white varieties in equal quantities to balance the sourness of the pickle. You have to first pick the leaves off the stem making sure that the leaf stalk is not included or your pickle will be ‘ sticky’ in more than one sense!
Wash these leaves thoroughly taking care not to crush them. Then leave them to dry on a clean towel for at least 2 days- depending, of course, on how hot and dry the weather is. Only experience will tell you how long. Partial drying out is necessary because gongura leaves tend to be sticky- remember their cousin, the hibiscus?
When the leaves are partially wilted, sauté them in a little oil, add salt to taste and keep aside.
Now start the variations and arguments on the which, what, where and how of the pickle masala. So I will stick to my own version which involves dry chillies and mustard seeds, a little fenugreek fried in oil till they splutter. Then add a little hing (asafoetida). First grind the masala to a powder. Then add the fried leaves and grind to a consistency of your choice- some people like it a little leafy, some people like it smooth. Mix in hot rice and enjoy!
Not a chemical formula
Will this be good? Will it be great? The proof of the pudding is in the eating. My personal experience is that there is no precise formula as in a chemical reaction. Everything depends on how sour the leaves are, how moist, how hot the chillies are, how spicy you like it…there are so many imponderables! Sometimes I’ve dried out the leaves too much and they have been impossible to grind. Sometimes they haven’t dried enough and the pickle was disgustingly sticky. How much oil so that it won’t be too dry? How many mustard seeds? Too many will make it bitter! I wonder how my Grandma got it so perfect!
In some parts of India like Maharashtra, roasted peanuts are added to the chutney and ground along with the leaves. But this is not what the conservatives mean by gongura pickle and it’s certainly not what they will tolerate!
Oh my! This sounds pretty complicated. If you don’t want to get your head into a whirl, I really would suggest that you leave it to the professionals and pick up a bottle of gongura pickle from a place where you know taste and hygiene go hand in hand. You can always pass it off as your own! But beware the preservative content- most pickle manufacturers use chemicals to preserve their stock. You must choose an established organic manufacturer to buy safety and health with your taste.
Bring out the steamed rice pronto!